Birth of a Black Nation, or Death Throes of a Culture?
Review by Ralph Dumain
Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin; illustrated by Kyle Baker. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004.
What it is
Glowing blurbs on the back cover are offered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chris Rock, Julian Bond, Alice Randall, and Charles Johnson. Granted that the blurb racket has no ethics or standards, let us nevertheless pose the question: did these individuals think through the object of their praise? The majority of them are in fact old enough to possess an historical context by which to evaluate what these younger folks are up to. Let's see whether they succeeded.
First off, I thought this comic graphic novel was excellently executed. I found it absorbing, clever, funny, satirical . . . and ultimately depressing. By depressing I mean to indicate not only the content of the work, but its ultimate premise. Later I will set up a framework to explain why.
The title, of course, parodically plays on the title of D.W. Griffith's pioneering yet notoriously odious film. This book thumbs its nose at this white supremacist legacy via the birth, albeit laced with irony, of a black nation. The book makes appropriate mockerychanging the names to protect the guiltyof Bush's coup d'êtat of 2000, of Bush as an ignorant, inarticulate oaf, of Cheney, of Colin and Condoleeza, of black criminals and billionaires, and of the horrible conditions of East St. Louis, and, to a lesser extent, makes light of peculiarities and foibles of the black communityblack women who fall for thugs, black men who prey on black women, middle class Afrocentric revolutionaries, the religiosity and cultural conservativism of the black elderly, etc. Some of these foibles come out when the denizens choose a name for their new nation (Blackland), a national anthem (the theme song of The Jeffersons with new lyrics), a flag (a red, black, and green tricolor background behind a picture of a light-skinned [white?] Jesus with a doubtful look on his face), famous black faces to go on their currency, etc. Not only the conditions but the flaws of the people themselves show through, and yet in the end they muster a determination and heroism that bolsters our indignation at what has been done to them. There is an ambiguously happy ending as they pull a rabbit out of the hat and engineer the preservation of their fledgling city-state from an American invasion. A treaty is signed, the national anthem is sung, and the Blackland flag with the puzzled face of Jesus overlooking the proceedings ripples in the wind.
This is an effective, multifaceted satire, and what it does it does well. One cannot readily justify criticism of a work which fulfills its own premise and fails to address other premises the critic might have in mind. After all, there is, from what we are told in the introduction, a real basis to this story: East St. Louis is very much like this; it is a ghettoized, all-black community; the cultural reference points have a relationship to collective social life and are recognizable by people familiar with the landscape of black America. And, while the notion of secession of East Saint Louis from the Union after the presidential election goes to the Bush-character after its black voters are illegitimately purged from the voter rolls, is an escapist fantasy, it does dramatically illustrate the outrageous injustice of said disenfranchisement. The work succeeds as a satire within the parameters it sets up.
How does it fit in?
What then, troubles me, not only about the social reality satirized in the book, but by its very premise? To place what this is all about and the basis for critiquing it, there are several essential factors to correlate:
(1) the authors/creators of the work,
(2) the anticipated audience or audiences,
(3) the merits of the work as a self-contained entity,
(4) the social and ideological context in which the work is presented,
(5) the historical place of the work and its comparison to works and conditions of the past.
When I began to read this work, I was immediately reminded of two precedents from the Black Power era: the film Putney Swope (1969), which parodied the Black Power movement and the advertising industry, and the novel by Sam Greenlee later turned into a film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on the premise of the first black CIA agent who ends up organizing an underground black guerilla organization. As unrealistic as some of the ideas associated with the Black Power movement may have been, there was a real movement in society back then. Now there is not. There remains only the politics of symbolism. Why then, a separatist fantasy in 2004?
A legitimate answer comes to mind: it is a graphic novel, a fantasy, and it is a satire, and this is a reasonable premise for a satire, not to be confused with a political program or philosophy. Therefore, literary license is entirely in order.
It is, I think, also difficult to know what exactly is intended by the final panels. The ending is a "happy" one, yet could not the singing of the Blackland anthem and the expression on the face of the Jesus flag suggest that the authors do not take their thought experiment entirely seriously? It's ambiguous, and this might not be a bad thing either. Humor is always a tricky business, but in the past decade and a half of cultural cynicism it's even trickier to discern whether humor undermines or reinforces the status quo.
All of these questions point beyond the text to the social subtext. Here once again we need to point to the sea changes that American society has undergone in the past four decades. Then we were under the thumb of a segregated society, with mainstream media and its entertainment offering the promise of an integrated societythat message barely squeaking through the prevailing censorship and restricted social vocabulary of the time. The Black Power movement upended the cultural landscape of liberal integrationism, and the media as well as other social institutions had to adapt. No more Sidney Poitier films, no more Julia, but broadly, also no more Father Knows Best. Instead, Shaft in the movie theaters, and Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times on television, not to mention All in the Family marking the general shift in society. There has been at least one other cultural shift since the beginning of the 1980s, but rather than delineating more precisely what has happened, I want to sum up our cultural order in two wordsthough I'm not sure in which order to place themI call it integrated segregation, or segregated integration.
What are the cultural mechanisms of integrated segregation?
Four decades ago, save for their role as entertainers, black people were completely excluded from the public sphere beyond a menial capacity. Thanks to the changes effected by the civil rights movement and urban unrest, a fundamental shift has occurred in civil and political society, in every sphere of social and cultural life, and in everyday social interaction that transpires in the public sphere. People see this changed reality in government, in business, in the media, in the workplace, everywhere but in the neighborhoods they inhabit and the people they socialize with not connected to the workplace. And in this capacity, all the horror stories notwithstanding, people more or less accept one another's presence. They know there are different interests that have to be addressed in some ways, different markets that must be catered to in the entertainment industry, and so on. In one way or another, they are exposed to some aspect of this diversity.
One obvious difference to be explored in the propaganda environmentI mean the ideological environmentor what Adorno and Horkheimer called the "culture industry"I mean the mass mediais the extent of common or divergent audiences for its products. One has to seek out specific publications, CDs, movies in theaters, etc., and thus the market segmentation for such products must be taken into account by their creators, producers, and distributors. (Perhaps comedy clubs are an exception, or is there still a Chitlin Circuit?) By contrast, there are venues which may be accessible at once to a variety of audiences, without any effort on their partmainstream newspapers, television programs. I have no idea how these calculations are made. I would imagine that movie producers and book and magazine publishers have some sense of their markets including how much crossover potential exists. (Since the music industry is now multimedia, I would guess that not only projected CD sales and publicity by radio stations targeted to obvious demographics are factors, but public exposure via television influences crossover potential.) I wonder whether the same calculations that apply to my first category apply to my second: do the same calculations enter into the production of black films as for black TV sitcoms, for example? I really have no idea what the audience demographics are, for the second category, especially.
I raise these questions with regard to the possibility of a dual audience. I am always curious how a dual audiencewith different perspectives and different experiential basesprocesses black-oriented entertainment. I wonder what calculations and decisions are being made on the production end to account for a diverse audience. I am most curious about how this works in network television, since the entire viewing public is a potential audience, and from time to time I am stunned by material that gets onto these awful black sitcoms and the cynical manipulation of cultural references that in an earlier day never would have been permitted to be interjected into televised entertainment. And I also wonder: who reads Aaron McGruder's Boondocks?
Where does Boondocks fit in?
When I first saw Boondocks, I took an instant dislike to it. The scowling face of the protagonist was jarring to menot that anger is foreign to me, or that everyone should not be angry round the clock given the society we inhabitbut to see the most prominent or the sole black comic strip in a newspaper stand out from all the rest on the basis not just of skin color but of this snarling character and the racially obsessed contentthis disturbed me. Again, not because the funnies should be pleasant and charming and not make social commentary, but rather, what is the message that comes across if the one characteristic most distinguishing whites and blacks in the world of the funnies is that the former go about their complacent, vapid business, and the latter angrily stew in their segregated juices? What is McGruder's bottom-line world outlook, beyond the obvious focus on experiences and concerns closest to his social situation? Who permitted this comic strip into all these newspapers and on what basis? Was it a grudging token concession to an otherwise neglected demographic? Was there an attitude somewhere in the administrative mechanisms of the newspaper business that, 'well, we might as well let them do their thing, of course they're going to have an attitude'? Did someone figure that blacks could have their comic strip and get their gripes off their chests and that whites would either accept it prima facie or skip over it out of lack of interest? Think about this: if a similarly strident, political cartoon (not the wussy and dated Doonesbury) were written by an angry, dissident white person (a Michael Moore type cartoonist, perhaps), would it be allowed into the mainstream press? To sum up, however unpleasant Boondocks may be to some white people, is it possible that its very presence in the paper, whatever its author's intentions and whatever the demographics of its readership, capitalizes on and is enabled by the rock-solid social segregation of American society, in which different groups are allowed to express different points of view on the condition that they remain separated from one another? And is there anyone in this nation but me who cares?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and I doubt whether many people even pose them. I should have kept up with the comic strip to see what McGruder was up to, but the few that I saw struck me as beating the same old tired issues. When I learned that McGruder went up against the Bush administration, I gained more respect for him, but I still haven't caught up with his comics.
Reading Birth of a Nation
I don't think this book could have been published on the basis of a ready-made dual audience, as I imagine that only dedicated fans of Boondocks, whetever the demographic spread, would take the trouble to buy or even borrow the book. I began to formulate these questions when a retired white factory worker, a very sharp autodidact with a high school education, gave me this book, saying he enjoyed it and found it funny and figured I'd probably appreciate it even more than he. There are multiple ironies in this scenario. My frame of reference for processing black-oriented entertainment is markedly different from what I generally expect of both black and non-black audiences. People seem either to categorically reject or swallow whole the entertainment they are fed, from their different social positions and experiential bases. Many white people are perfectly willing to consume black entertainment, and after all, fortunes are made because blacks are so entertaining. And some whites are even willing to acknowledge social issues and accept criticisms of the racial order, especially in comic form. This book is not just mindless entertainment. I wonder, though, how are people going to process this?
Again, because it is a satirical fantasy, interested readers are likely to accept the book on its own terms. Insofar as the fantasy is predicated on real social conditions, one is unlikely to violate the logic of the situation by fantasizing that legions of white people are going to rush in and take up positions on the barricades prepared to die in Blackland's defense. Now that would be stretching fantasy too far!
Yet, lodged somewhere in the above paragraph is the fulcrum of my unease. Is there more to be said about Blackland's mental universe?
Who and what are the entities that populate this universe? The mayor's original advisor is a playa. Al Sharpton makes a guest appearance giving a rabble-rousing speech. The mayor's ditzy, selfish girlfriend leaves him after his efforts at fighting disenfranchisement fail. The New African People's Party (NAPP) is comprised of tough-talking middle class Afrocentrics whose meeting is interrupted by the leader's mother bringing them cookies. The black billionaire and the local black crime boss involve themselves in the Blackland scenario for their own selfish interests. Meetings to decide Blackland's new flag, anthem, and currency are dominated by elderly people who don't want to see anything African but love Jesus. A female member of NAPP falls for Roscoe the crime boss. Petty fighting leading to bloodshed breaks out over petty squabbles from time to time. There is a rivalry over the mayor/president's affections. Meanwhile, he is embroiled in some serious outmaneuvering of his undependable allies the billionaire and crime boss.
What transpires beyond Blackland's borders and who enters the picture? The US president and his advisors plot Blackland's downfall. Blackland's assets are frozen but Blackland retaliates by creating an untraceable fictitious 'offshore' bank, into which foreign interests funnel their funds. Blackland has its own hackers on the case. Blackland's power is cut-off. An eccentric geek with an underground expertise in alternative energy sources comes in to restore the city's power. A black pilot steals one of the US Air Force's most advanced fighters and defects to Blackland. The leader of NAPP becomes Blackland's mayor/president's advisor. An oil sheik worried about the man with the alternative energy sources (a "Merlin") contacts a sleeper in Blackland to arrange an assassination. Cornel West makes an appearance in a classroom. There is international intrigue and negotiation involving Saudi Arabia, the White House, and Blackland. Blackland summons a military defense against an armed US invasion while fighting off betrayal within. All these forces come together in an explosive climax.
Moral of the story?
The evil forces linking Blackland to the outside world involve money, power, and violence. Blackland's faithful defenders who most successfully contend with the outside world have military, technological, computer, and financial expertise, skills all brought in from outside the nationalized ghetto. The residents of Blacklandthe former East Saint Louisare provincial, ignorant, and largely honest ghetto dwellers. There are no white people in this social universe, and no benevolent white people make their appearance beyond the borders of Blackland. The positive linkages to the outside world involve the aforementioned appropriation of technical expertise. Otherwise, the cultural universe of Blackland is blackblack-defined, black-bounded, nothing but black, all the foibles and shortcomings black, all the virtues and strengths black, all the political, cultural, and social perspectives blacka black-centric mental universe directed by black authors to an audience presumed to be black with a sprinkling of white flies (who would now never use the term "Black" but would dutifully utter the now more respectable phrase "African American" that has been shoved down everybody's throats) on the wall peeking in on a black-delimited world.
This is not the 1960s or the 1970s; the material reality that engendered Putney Swope and The Spook Who Sat by the Door has altered beyond the expectations anyone could have had 35 years ago; yet now we are treated to a black nationalist fantasy by authors whose very functioning in mainstream society demands a sophistication unknown to their forbears. Sure, it's a satire; Blackland's victory seems to be laced with irony; but in the final analysis, what is the mental universe inhabited by McGruder and his co-authors, and what deep down do they think they are doing? Could they themselves answer this question?
A fantasy or satire of this sort would be unthinkable now but for the stubborn persistence of social segregation. McGruder's position in the culture industry marketplace would be unthinkable now save for the mechanisms of integrated segregation. A fantasy of this sort marks the very boundaries of public discourse, itself bounded and enforced by social reality. A discourse beyond this boundary would be the sound of a tree falling in an uninhabited forest, bearing no perceptible social meaning because it would have no measurable audience, yet the discourse itself has fallen behind the global perspective required to address the predicament. Contemplating this, I get very depressed. There are a number of real things that depress me: the shameful disenfranchisement of the black electorate, the assault on equal opportunity, the economic extermination of the black working class, the bloated privatized prison system, a deteriorating youth culture and accelerating ignorance and violence, the mental and psychological deterioration of the American populace inside and outside the inner city, the disgraceful and destructive actions of a lawless, reckless, fascistic federal government. I think of all these depressing things as I read this book. But most depressing of all is not the fact that this fantasized Blackland could never become real because it is infeasible from a practical standpoint, but because its segregated, exclusively black cultural perspective dooms it to failure from its very conception. This kind of thinking is historically obsolete and cannot win. Does McGruder understand this, or at the end of the day is he just another petty bourgeois race man?
24 July 2006 - 3 August 2006
©2006 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.
This review was ready for publication on 3 August 2006, but after an e-mail exchange with my main interlocuter on the subject and further deliberation, I hesitated, as I was unsure that I had expressed my position adequately. I am sure I wanted to fill in some gaps in my reasoning, and I think I still do, but now I think my point of departure is fundamentally sound. Four years ago, I had not yet read McGruder's comic strip The Boondocks, nor did I know much about his perspective. I sat on this review. In the last week of June 2007 I returned to my interest in Aaron McGruders contributions to comic art, this time reading his compilation The Boondocks: Because I Know You Dont Read the Newspapers. (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Pub., 2000). I sat down at a public establishment to drink coffee and read the first half of the book straight through laughing my ass off louder and louder the farther I got into it. Apparently, these were the first strips, and quite a ride. I read most if not all of the anthologies of the comic strip and reviewed them in August 2007.
It is obvious that McGruder is quite a sophisticated person, likely more sophisticated than most of his readers. In my reviews I raised the question of the clarity and intent of some of his political/cultural statements, and the degree to which the main character Huey reflects McGruder's views. Satire is not obligated to render a definitive viewpoint or an affirmative ideological position, but since McGruder aims at sensitizing his audience about certain issues, one would hope that he does not inadvertently compound the confusion in the public mind by playing in an unclear fashion with ideas that most of his audience may not be in a position to understand or analyze critically. This is especially the case when McGruder puts into play leftist and political or cultural nationalist ideas. Since he posits a totally black social perspective in his fictional universe, it is not immediately evident how broad his purview actually is.
I believe that eventually I read the remaining anthologies, and then left this subject alone until seeing a few recent episodes of the television version of The Boondocks, the most outstanding of which was an obvious and indescribably hilarious satire on Tyler Perry. In the few other episodes I saw, I noted an especially nasty, cynical tone to these shows, which made me wonder what McGruder was trying to achieve. I decided I had to start watching the entire series, so in the past week I started with episode 1 of season 1. I found the television series to be less impressive than the comic strip, and was put off by the relentless spouting of the infamous "n"word. However, the series made a sudden leap with the famous episode The Return of the King (i.e. Martin Luther King, Jr.), which was hilarious and painful. Following that was another side-splitting episode, The Itis, which I had seen before and which is mercifully absent the notorious word.
This viewing experience resurrected for me an unanswered question. Obviously, McGruder wishes to communicate with a mass black audience (hopefully, when the kids aren't watching) in a language they will understand. It is difficult to predict how people will react: they will recognize the object of ridicule, but will they slap their sides and say "yeah, that's us at our worst" and go on thinking the same way as before, or will they wake up, and to what perspective? McGruder must know more than what can be seen in these cartoon shows, but the nature of a niche is that this is where people tend to stay, as the preponderance of social forces, including popular culture, keeps them there. And this is why I am now impelled to publish this old essay, because the questions I have raised come down to the decisive dilemma I have named: integrated segregation. People of diverse backgrounds mix in the workplace, rub shoulders in shopping centers and other public places, consume many of the same artifacts of popular culture, but at the end of the day, they come home to segregated neighborhoods and lead segregated lives. Thus some of the most fundamental questions do not show up on the social radar, even though a huge segment of popular culture promotes the integrationist ideal. The existence of The Boondocks and its success is predicated on the system of integrated segregation, and does not look beyond it. Not that it should be obligated to do so, but I'm just saying . . .
With all this in mind, I now contend that my initial instinct was sound: McGruder's and Hudlin's Birth of a Nation, for all of its virtues as satirical social critique, is based on fundamentally flawed premises.
1 September 2010
The Boondocks (1)
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